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Profanity-laced vehicle sat for days outside Boston elementary school

Transportation Department officials said an erroneous address contributed to the delay in towing the vehicle.
Transportation Department officials said an erroneous address contributed to the delay in towing the vehicle.(hand out)

The 2003 Volvo station wagon covered in scurrilous graffiti sat outside John Winthrop Elementary School for days, in plain sight of young students and their parents, who hail from a community wracked by strife.

It would take more than a week for the City of Boston to tow the car from outside the Grove Hall school.

The station wagon's lingering presence hit a tender nerve among some people who work in the building, located in one of the city's most vulnerable communities. Had the car been parked in a more vocal or affluent neighborhood, they said, the vehicle would not have been allowed to remain for as long as it did.

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"If it were in a white community, that car would have been gone in one day,'' said a school official who saw the graffiti.

Two school officials who saw the graffiti-laced car spoke to the Globe. They asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

On Monday morning, an outraged tipster snapped pictures of the spray-painted station wagon and submitted them to the Globe.

"It is outrageous that students and parents are expected to witness this kind of language and nothing was done about it for more than a week,'' said a second school official who spoke to the Globe.

A teacher eventually reported the offensive graffiti, but principal Leah Blake McKetty did not report it or try to get the vehicle removed from the sight of her students, confirmed School Department spokesman Richard Weir.

"Profanity scrawled on a car parked on a public street near one of our schools does not create the safe, respectful, responsible, and healthy school environment that we believe is necessary to promote high academic achievement for all,'' said Weir, who hailed the teacher who filed the complaint.

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Winthrop Elementary includes students from kindergarten to fifth grade. Ninety-six percent of its students are black or Hispanic, according to the school's website. If the universal food plan were not in place, 86 percent would be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

The school officials who spoke to the Globe said they noticed the station wagon parked on Danube Street — at the back of the school and near two playgrounds — for more than a week. They were stunned by what was scrawled on it.

They said the car's white exterior was covered in spray-painted profanities, including a colloquial reference to prostitutes, an epithet targeting women, and an especially foul profanity. The offensive words were mostly on the car's passenger side, facing the school. At some point during the week, a tire was slashed, one of the witnesses said.

A Winthrop School teacher called the city's 311 anonymous help line at 10:35 a.m. Wednesday to report the offensive graffiti, Weir said.

The car had been parked there for several days, Weir said, but was splayed with spray paint only about two days before the teacher's call.

The Boston Transportation Department said it responded to the complaint Friday, but the caller had given a wrong location for the vehicle, saying it was at the intersection of Brookford and Dacia streets — a spot in front of the school property, transportation spokeswoman Tracey Ganiatsos said. A transportation official went to Brookford and Dacia, but the vehicle was not there.

Another transportation crew working in the neighborhood on Friday spotted the Volvo on Danube Street, at the back of the school, where it had been all along. The crew put a boot on one of the car's tires because the owner owes $470 in fees and related fines on six parking tickets, Ganiatsos said.

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Ganiatsos did not identify the owner by name, citing driver privacy, but said the car is registered to a Hillsboro Road address in Mattapan. It is unclear why the vehicle was parked for days near the school.

The owner of the vehicle called the Transportation Department on Friday evening, offering to pay the tickets. But Ganiatsos said no payment was received Monday, and a tow crew was dispatched to remove the vehicle to a lot at 200 Frontage Road, where it remained Tuesday.

Why didn't the city simply tow the vehicle in the first place, the two school officials who spoke on condition of anonymity demanded to know.

Ganiatsos pointed to Transportation Department regulations that require the city to tow a vehicle only if it becomes a public hazard, such as having shattered windows that could pose a danger to people walking near the vehicle.

The city also allows the owner to attempt "to deal with the situation" before the city resorts to towing the vehicle, she said.

"We certainly sympathize with the parents of the children who attend this school; however, BTD's standard operating procedures and policies are followed citywide,'' Ganiatsos said.

"That being said, if this particular situation had been brought to the attention of a supervisor, we may have been able to take immediate action due to the extenuating circumstances. It was not."

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Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.